A Thrill of Polytheistic Discovery and the Dissatisfaction of its Spread
Posted on July 15, 2016
Helio recently wrote a piece about the discovery of a little-known indigenous Iberian canine god, Quangeio. I have provided a link to it, because I think it is really cool, and not at all because I’m going to disagree or speak to his points. Gods, especially local gods, can help tie people to the place more fundamentally and intimately than a wider pantheon, and there’s something noteworthy about being able to claim that one’s back yard is quite literally the old stomping grounds of a deity. Unfortunately, this is not something that many polytheists from the New World that do not follow indigenous tradition can speak to. So perhaps there is a little bit of jealousy coming from this, as well.
There are many Gods who are unknown to modern Pagans and polytheists. They are recorded in dusty tomes filed away in the collections of antiquities and folklore studies, in historic collections, and scholastic libraries. Their names are known only academically, from those scholars who study epigraphic, literary, or other forms of historic remnants, and who are not at all interested in the contemporary rehabilitation and recreation of their cults. In all actuality, Western polytheists barely scratch the surface of the sheer plethora of deities that the ancients would have recognized, worshiped, and interacted with on a frequent basis.
Collectively, we constrict ourselves to known deities, popular deities, or otherwise late-stage pantheon developments for a number of reasons, but mostly due to the accessibility of the knowledge of them. For those polytheists who generally have no form of “revealed” experiences or personal interaction other than the rites and rituals which we engage in, it is understandable that there is some reticence to explore deities which are not better attested in terms of cult and practice. Some of these deities are, quite literally, bare names or scant figures on a stone somewhere in the middle of Europe, and there is nothing informing practitioners as to the nature of their cultus. Otherwise, some practitioners do not have the academic inclinations required to sift through the material, so they content themselves with remaining within that which is familiar, and there is no shame at all in that.
But there are times when the individual is drawn to the worship of these deities, where the work in uncovering in-depth studies or developing contemporary practice in order to dig deeper into the nature of these little-known cults needs to be done. Just as Helio was pulled to explore Quangeio, just like River Devora was pulled to explore the Matres and Matronae and perpetuate their cultus, and just like a hundred other polytheists are pulled to the liminal, the less-than-accounted, and the rare expressions of divinity. There are more gods out there to be worshiped than there are modern worshipers, I feel.
Of course, the reasons for this is up to the individual enacting the study. Just as many people do it out of some primal connection and urge to worship as they do it for the prestige and notoriety of being the one to uncover and craft the foundation of a new cult. And, unfortunately, there are people who utilize the gods for their own personal, egotistical ends. To make a name for themselves as the authority in some facet of the wider Pagan community.
And please understand that I am most assuredly not accusing Helio of doing this. Nor River. Nor anyone else I might name in this piece. I respect them and their piety too much to accuse them of utilizing the Gods for selfish ends.
However, I cannot help but sometimes feel that Paganism, and all the religions that fall under the overarching Pagan identifier, has a problem with egoism, cults of personality, and selfish ends masked by false piety. Whether it is pervasive or not, I cannot say. But there is no doubt that our religious communities are so small that even new bloggers can appear and make a name for themselves as an authority figure within a relatively short amount of time. Our demographics are such that many Pagans, either by virtue of the blogging networks or the Pagan convention and festival circuit, do not have to try very hard to really become “household names”. This is even more likely if one publishes any kind of widely disseminated book. The ease of which one can become an authority at any measure is somewhat shocking, if we sit down and really think about it. We’re demographically scattered, to the point where even the in-person association we have is so fleeting that there’s few chances to vet an individual as a charlatan or otherwise disingenuous (at best) or dangerous (at worst) individual. We can be whoever we want to be on the internet.
The proliferation of ideas and the speed of which they can be spread is outstanding, and any information that gets published to a blog or on a forum post or in social media can be taken and spun by someone elsewhere. It sometimes feels like there is a very real threat of the gods being appropriated because they are less known, because there’s something unique and different and notorious . All too often we hear stories from sites like tumblr where individuals have heard of a deity, and immediately assume the mantle of some kind of high worshiper of that god, seemingly for the fact that it is an edgy, “new” thing. Gods whose memories and reconstructed cults get beaten into a mockery or what they should be, or wholly utilized for personal gain.
So then scholastic polytheists who are interested in rehabilitating and recreating the cults of these lesser known deities are placed in a position as to what they do with the information they’ve accrued and positioned. Very often, we have to decide whether or not we hoard our knowledge and our devotional practice, or publish it and risk it spiraling out of control as the newest “fad” within Paganism. This tendency within Paganism places some of us in the position of addressing some questions that very few people of other religions have to ask themselves. Some very uncomfortable ones, if I can be completely honest with you.
Questions such as: Is it better that the information gets published regardless of who can use it and what comes of it? Is it better for a god to be worshiped, even if they are not worshiped well? Do we trust that They will react appropriately to the people who are not as vested in the authentic reconstruction of their cultus?
Do we gatekeep these lesser known gods that we find? Do we have the right to protect their cultus, the memory, and take an active role in guiding the foundations of a modern iteration of their cultus? If it is not a right, is it an obligation that we take upon ourselves as being stewards of the memory of their cults? Obviously the people who have done the research have invested a great deal of energy in the uncovering and interaction with these gods. Is it a duty to cultivate the cultus after we put it in motion? If we are to consider ourselves ethical, that we do our practice out of veneration and respect and the giving of worth to the divine, can we ethically direct these initiatives? Is it even ethical to contemplate it?
Do I even have the right to open this particular can of worms?
It should be obvious that there is going to be no universal agreement to the proliferation of polytheistic identity. And, ultimately, very few of us are in a position to dictate the methods of religiosity to anyone but ourselves. We can all lead by example, of course, but much like my previous critiques about Paganism and pseudoscholarship, the appropriation and exploitation of these cults is something that can and will absolutely happen. In essence, it is something that has already happened, and numerous spheres of misinformation have threaded their way into the popular discourse of particular divinities.
I cannot speak for anyone else reading this, but I do know that contemplating my own questions makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to be put in the position where I feel like I have to shepherd the identity of these deities. I don’t want that responsibility. But, at the same time, I believe that as polytheists who decide to do ‘the work’, that is we put our words out there and do not stick to a wholly private practice, we have an obligation to do it honestly and, above all, well. I cringe every time I read or hear about an individual picking up the mantle as spokesperson, priest, or priestess of a deity that had only just been spoken of in wider dialogue. I weary of getting into fights with anti-intellectuals who cannot articulate why they want to do what they do, simply because they mistrust academic, educational, or cultural authority.
For the record, I do not believe in gatekeeping basic information. I believe in making things intelligently accessible and available for people to educate themselves with, which means I believe in accuracy. I believe in terminological and philosophical defense, which has unfortunately been often misconstrued as gatekeeping and protecting of identity to the point of exclusivity. I also believe in the right of individual traditions and cults to protect their mysteries, and reveal only what they wish to for mass consumption. I do not have a problem with organizations that do not share their inner workings for everyone to read with no consideration to it. I recognize that cults will change from region to region, and a natural dissemination of religious knowledge is unavoidable (even were we to want to avoid it, which I do not).
I hate the idea of having to consider the impact of my words, and whether or not someone can twist them to suit them and their agendas. But they can, and do, and I must. I have to make the decision to answer my questions each time I go to write or contemplate something little known. I do not think I am alone in these concerns. I have lesser known Gods I am investigating, and pulled to. And it will get to the point where I have to made the decision whether I have the right to protect this knowledge, or I have the duty to spread it to people who may be interested. Or neither, and then be really out of sorts.
But I do know that there is a certain thrill at being pulled to discover/rediscover lost and forgotten gods, and it is something that many people should be rightly proud of doing and recognized for. But, there is also dissatisfaction at seeing how some people take that discovery and utilize it for themselves, and that is something which we ultimately cannot control.
Welcome to the world of revitalizing polytheism, I guess?
There will always be people who misuse and distort things to suit their egoistical goals. You’ll even find that in Christianity and Islam and they’re not minority religions. I’ve honestly come to the conclusion that you can’t let your actions be vetted by those people, but should focus instead on what good you can do despite them. And if the issue is whether or not to spread knowledge about lesser-known deities, I’ll gladly do it. I mean, those gods were virtually forgotten once, left on the brink of oblivion with little more than their names to speak of. No way I’ll turn away the chance of helping to prevent that from happening again. Let as many people as possible know about Them so that there’s little chance of Them being forgotten once more.
Is there a risk of appropriation? Yes! But honestly, sometimes, there’s an over-reaction on that, since historically, gods have moved between cultures, found new worshippers in different places and acquired different cults. Again, Saraswati is a case in point: from local river goddess, She has grown into a universal deity of flowing things, honoured not just by Hindus everywhere, but also Jains as well as Tibetan and Japanese Buddhists. If Her cult was starting to reach that level today, I reckon some would cry foul on the grounds that the Tibetans and Japanese were appropriating Her. This doesn’t mean that anything goes, but it does mean the gods are not culturally fixed.
I largely agree. Regionalism does as regionalism does, and the transmission of deity cults to different areas of the world, and into different cultures, is just a natural extension of the mutability of polytheism. If they were regionally and culturally fixed, I wouldn’t have much right to worship my gods!
In this, I suppose I’m more concerned with those people who hop around to be the primary figure associated with these underrepresented gods, simply because of that prestige. To me, that’s hubris. Always a threat, I know.
It goes the other way though. The misappropriation sometimes comes first, and I think it’s important for us to combat that and fix it. Hekate is a prime example, even if She isn’t a lesser known or forgotten deity. How long has She been relegated to the role of crone of the triple Goddess? Too long. Getting as much real information out there as possible is surely better than letting that continue on? Sadly I feel that the crone triple Goddess thing is not going to go away. It’s too ingrained in Paganism. I can only feel like, if only we could have got the real information out there before She was misappropriated by Graves and Crowley and the like. It wouldn’t have stopped what has happened, but it may have lessened it somehow.
But then, maybe it was a good thing. If there wasn’t that misappropriation would Hekate have gotten so much attention as She now has? Would we have books and groups dedicated not only to Her, but to revealing the truth about Her?
I don’t know the answer, these are just some of the conflicting thoughts I have on the issue. It’s complicated isn’t it.
Hekate actually came to mind in a previous conversation with another friend of mine! I made a snarky comment about how I could talk about Trivia and not have to deal with the same kind of misunderstanding that Hekate would elicit. It sort of precipitated this conversation.
I agree with you! It’s a very complicated, morally questionable position to be put in. I’ve previously written about my thoughts on pseudo-scholarship (and by extension, misappropriation of the same vein similar to Hekate as a Crone).
I think you raise some very good questions which, while there may be not much in the way of answers forthcoming, are important to think about just as much as some of the ones I raised, above. But, hindsight is always going to be 20/20 and I guess we can’t spend too much time wondering what would happen if we zigged instead of zagged. I don’t know the answers to my own questions, let alone yours, so I guess we have to act as our own ethics dictates.
Agreed, I think even if we don’t have the answers, it’s important we ask the questions of ourselves and others. Better to consider the possibilities than to just fly in blind and not see what we did wrong, if it goes badly. I think each situation will have a different answer too. Sometimes we might find ourselves not willing to take the risk of sharing what we’ve learned, but other times we might see the rewards outweigh the risk. So either way, I don’t think there could be any definitive answers to apply to every situation.
I have to admit though, the idea of people setting themselves up as authority figures of things they know little about is almost enough to make me want to keep my mouth shut.
Reblogged this on Wandering the Lost Road.